After a career as a flamenco dancer, Marisa turned to belly dance in her retirement and loves sharing her knowledge of the art form.
Recently, I moved to a new city and had to find a new belly dance teacher. I'm getting older, so I sought out an elderly teacher with a group of older dancers (where I could blend in with the crowd!). I soon discovered the teacher was passionate about belly dance as it used to be, in the Golden Age, before it was "adulterated" by ballet and other Western influences.
Is Belly Dance "Contaminated" by Western Dance?
My answer? Yes, of course it is, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. And the truth is, even Golden Age belly dance was not pure, authentic belly dance.
In an interview (translated here) the famous night club owner, Badia Masabni, explains how she fused Egyptian, Persian, Latin and Turkish to form her version of raqs sharki (now thought of as the Golden Age of belly dance).
Badia Masabni hired ballet masters to train her dancers and create choreography. It must be remembered, though, that her shows included Latin and music hall dances as well as raqs sharki, and the ballet training was designed to help the dancers gain the strength and flexibility to master the unfamiliar dance moves.
Tahia Carioca, or instance, got her name because she was so good at the Carioca!
You can see the influence of ballet training on the posture and graceful arms of dancers like Samia Gamal, but apart from a low arabesque, there's no sign of ballet steps being used in belly dance at that time, in spite of the training the dancers received.
Ballet and the Reda Troupe
The Reda troupe also used Russian ballet masters, but again it was intended more to improve posture and discipline than to change the dance.
In fact, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were greater influences on Reda than any ballet master. I feel belly dance definitely has a greater affinity with jazz ballet than classical ballet. I remember when I switched from ballet to jazz, having to get used to "earthing" myself, working into the floor rather than trying to escape it. However, having spent a few weeks studying with my new teacher and getting used to her style, I look back and see the ballet influence quite noticeably in the Reda-style dances that I've been taught: the arms extending in all directions, the travelling steps (especially the galops), the spins and arabesque turns, the pointed feet and the steps done on high relevé.
The Belly Dance Arabesque
Do you know what a belly dance arabesque is? Are you sure? After discussing this with other belly dancers, I've discovered I'm not the only person who has misunderstood it for years.
Why has that happened? Because everyone knows what an "arabesque" is, so when we hear the word in a belly dance class, we think they know it already. Especially if you learned a bit of ballet as a child. After that, no matter what the teacher demonstrates, the student is seeing the ballet position in her mind's eye. I certainly did! Which is a problem, because a belly dance arabesque is different.
A ballet arabesque is a position where you stand on one leg with the other leg extended behind. The toe can be touching the ground or raised high in the air, but the knee must be completely straight—if it's even slightly bent, it's a different pose (attitude).
I always thought the belly dance version was a low (45 degrees) ballet arabesque. It's not. The name applies to a combination of steps, not just a pose. You probably know it already: take three steps in one direction then step on your front foot and pivot, lifting your other leg behind as you turn. It's demonstrated below by Raqia Hassan (starting at about 1 minute 50).
Notice how tucked in her lifted foot is. In fact, she demonstrates the straight-leg position as incorrect, saying, "we are not ballerinas"!
Like all belly dance moves, the arabesque varies from instructor to instructor - so Raqia Hassan's isn't the only version. You'll see plenty of dancers who raise the foot behind them—but it's rare for Egyptian or Turkish dancers to lift the free leg completely straight. For years I've thought my teachers were just being lazy when they arabesque'd with a bent knee—now I understand that's the way it's supposed to be!
I see the straight leg a lot in Western dancers and teachers, but I think that's because so many of them (like me) trained in other dance styles before they took up belly dancing. To them, extending the back leg and pointing the toe is second nature.
I certainly find it tough. I've been learning a beautiful choreography which is full of flowing arabesques, and I feel the music cries out for long, sweeping body lines and limbs extending to the walls. It's hard to rein myself in and bend those knees.
© 2020 Marisa Wright